The 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, warned us, saying: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” On that Tuesday morning of September 11th of 2001, the monsters showed up in New York, in Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania. Al Qaeda terrorists took over four commercial aircraft filled with unsuspecting civilian passengers who had innocently boarded airplanes that morning, going somewhere, for work or vacation, to visit family, or whatever the throngs of people crowding airports were doing that day.
Two were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, and the fourth did not make it to whatever the intended target was but was, instead, brought down in Pennsylvania by brave passengers who died putting up resistance to the terrorists. America and the world were in shock. At first it didn’t seem like it could have even been possible. Shock gave way to anger blended with fear.
There was resolve in our government to find out who was behind this bloody, cowardly attack and to punish them in a way that was revenge laced with warning.
Al Qaeda had found an unwitting partner in Taliban ruled Afghanistan where they could base their terrorist training camps, and so that poor nation, filled with people who largely didn’t even have access to TV and radio news, who were broadly too illiterate to read about 9-11, were invaded by American troops and most of them had no idea why.
One of the American interrogators, an old college roommates from two generations ago told me that most of the people he talked to thought that the 9-11 attack was Afghanistan’s response to the American invasion of their country. They not only didn’t understand what was going on, they even had the sequence of events confused.
There was an 18-year-old Yemini man in Afghanistan at the time who thought he was on his way to college. He had sought letters of reference from his father’s government contacts in Saudi Arabia and in exchange for their support in getting him in to school, Mansoor Adayfi had been sent to do some interviews with Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan for a publication the government of Saudi Arabia wanted to print.
American’s were ill-equipped to hunt down Al Qaeda operatives on their own, and so they made the wretched decision to pay a bounty to Afghans who turned in members of Al Qaeda. So, without any proof or documentation, any poor Afghan could settle a dispute with an angry neighbor or just earn a cool thousand or two thousand American dollars by pointing at another Afghan and saying, “He was one of them.” 86% of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were captured in this way. Almost all of them. Most of them had no connection to terrorism and had no idea why they were being arrested and tortured for information they simply could not have known anything about.
Mansoor was a kid. He was innocent. But he was held, first in Afghanistan, and then for 14 years in Guantanamo Bay.
Driven by fear, determination, and a lust for revenge, Americans stared into the abyss of terrorism so intently, for so long, that the abyss began to look back and we became the monsters we had set out to fight. I rarely include long passages in my writings, but I want you to learn about Mansoor’s experience in his own words.
I would love to encourage you to read the whole book but please, let me share a few paragraphs from Mansoor’s personal account in his autobiography: Don’t Forget Us Here
I waited in darkness for death. The interrogators were done with me. “You aren’t valuable enough to keep alive,” they said. I didn’t have the intelligence they wanted on al Qaeda’s chain of command. They bound my hands with duct tape, then taped my eyes and ears. They taped my mouth and then pulled a hood over my heard. They dragged me outside into the cold and forced me to my knees. I hadn’t seen the light of day in weeks and I thought I would never see blue sky again. I’d been kept hooded or inside dark rooms, stripped naked, and beaten bloody for I don’t know how long. Weeks. A month. Maybe more.
I’d never been in a situation I couldn’t talk myself out of. None of that mattered when the United States started bombing and dropping leaflets offering reward money for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. The warlords got a better price selling Arabs to the Americans. p. 3
A man cried close by. He begged someone to stop beating him. He begged for his life. This was new. In the endless darkness, I’d heard women and children beg, too. A soldier yelled and then there was gunfire, but it wasn’t for me. My heart pounded through my temples. I cried. Where would the bullet hit me? Would they shoot me in the head? In the chest? Would I feel pain? The rest of my life existed in these seconds and no more, I prayed again to Allah. I wished I wasn’t so cold. p. 4
I’d spent weeks in darkness hanging from a ceiling, naked, beaten, electrocuted . . . until all that remained was pain, real pain, a pain I never imagined existed. I tried to figure out what I could say that would make them stop. I told them the truth – that I was a student, that I was eighteen, that I was from Yemen. I told them I wasn’t a fighter, that I didn’t hate America, that I wasn’t al Qaeda – but they didn’t want that. They wanted something from me I didn’t have to give. They wanted me to admit that I was a man named Adel, an Egyptian al Qaeda recruiter, a terrorist who planned bombings. Fine, I’ll be whoever you want me to be,” I said. “I’ll be your Adel.” p.5
They cut your clothes off, strip you naked, and hose you down. You’re barely nineteen and all your life you’ve never been naked in front of a woman. Now they make you stand for all to see and you see women soldiers watch you. The humiliation burns. They take photos of you, every part of you – even your genitals. All you can think is that you want to wake up from this crazy nightmare. p. 18
They throw you to the ground and pile on top of you and hold you down while someone searches your ass again in the worst way. They laugh. They drag your naked body across rocks and stones and gravel and you feel your skin peel away but don’t feel the pain. p. 19
I look around my cage and found the foam sleep mat, a toothbrush, two blankets, a bar of soap, a pair of flip-flops, a canteen for water, one white bucket for shit and pee, and another white bucket for water. That was all I had now. p. 21
The soldiers had so much hate and fear. I knew by now that they thought I was al Qaeda and that I had something to do with the attacks on September 11. I had heard about the attacks on the radio in a restaurant in Afghanistan, and I didn’t think anything of it. There were no TVs, no photographs of the event, and I couldn’t imagine airplanes flying into buildings or why someone would want to kill so many people. p. 22
Weeks we thought, months at the most, and we would be set free. The older brothers who were educated and new about the world and international laws said the Americans couldn’t hold us forever without a reason – it was against their laws; it was against international laws.
But many brothers still thought we would be executed. They came from countries known to torture prisoners, and those prisoners never lived to tell about it. They were always executed instead of released.
How can they just release hundreds of men they have tortured? p. 44
On 9-11, the news reached me while I was having my teeth cleaned at my dentist’s office. We all stopped and we watched on the little TV in his office as the media tried to figure out what was going on. He finished with my teeth and I went to my office. My staff were all sitting around, listening to the radio and staring out the window. We tried to be productive for a few hours but we closed early and I headed home.
I was shocked to see the parking lots at grocery stores full and there were long lines at the gas stations. Did people in my town in southern Missouri believe that we were going to run out of food and fuel? When they heard that thousands of people had died in a terrorist attack, their first thought was to fill up their refrigerators and their gas tanks?
The only Muslim I knew in town at that time lived across the street from me. Fearing an anti-Muslim reaction all over the USA, I went over to check on him. His wife was in tears, and she said that he was in hiding. Threatening messages from some co-workers made him realize that he might be the target of red-neck reprisals and so he booked himself a hotel room and hunkered down. I didn’t know what to do, so, I mowed his yard. It needed to be mowed and I needed to show him a sign of kindness and acceptance that I was afraid he wouldn’t get from the rest of the neighbors.
The next day I noticed that those annoying “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets had disappeared from convenience store counters. I even went to some of the places where I was accustomed to seeing them. They had all disappeared over-night. No one in this overtly religious community wanted to ask that question right now.
They knew what they were going to do and, at least at some level, they knew that Jesus wouldn’t launch an all-out attack on anybody, so Jesus’ stock value fell hard on 9-11.
At the risk of stating the obvious: Terrorists do what they do to make people feel afraid. And on 9-11, most Americans were all too willing to react exactly the way that Osama Bin Laden wanted them to react. People were terrified. They thought of themselves first. They rushed out to buy supplies before anyone else could get them. Many people even covered their windows with plastic and duct tape in case chemical warfare was next . . . and since Springfield, Missouri is so strategically important to the defense of America, many of our neighbors acted quickly.
But fear doesn't stay in its most simple form of trembling and hiding. Fear becomes anger. If you didn’t know it before, please hear me now, the root ingredient of all anger is fear. If you are angry, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “What am I afraid of?” In the aftermath of 9-11, we were afraid that they would do it again.
Our anger needed a target but al Qaeda isn’t a nation. They had training camps in Afghanistan but the Taliban ruled nation of Afghanistan had not attacked us. They may have been complicit in letting al Qaeda have camps there but they were not organized enough to keep the Girl Scouts from having camps there. But we were angry, and so we didn’t just attack al Qaeda training camps. We attacked the whole nation of Afghanistan and went after the Taliban.
And because we were still afraid, we invaded Iraq too. They had nothing to do with 9-11 or al Qaeda but Dick Cheney had been looking for an easy war to start and win and Iraq was just sitting there…. Disarmed, no air force, no navy, and a lot of Muslims. And very few Americans objected because, we weren’t just afraid of al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden. We didn’t understand Muslim extremists and so we were just afraid of all Muslims. Not at all unlike assuming that all Christians are like Timothy McVeigh of Oklahoma City bombing infamy.
We were the victims of a heinous terrorist attack on 9-11; an attack that killed nearly 3000 innocent people. In response, we have attacked two nations who had nothing to do with 9-11 and sustained the longest wars in American history, killing millions and impoverishing millions more. In the process of conducting a War on Terrorism, we became terrorists.
We swept up thousands of innocent people and disappeared them to black sites no journalist has ever seen where they were tortured, many to death. Then we established this prison off American shores, in Cuba, where the prying eyes of the media couldn’t see what we did.
This is what fear does to us. We gaze into the abyss until we become the monsters we feared, and millions are killed, wounded, impoverished, or, frankly, radicalized by what we did. Mansoor Adayfe was just a kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when America went crazy with fear. His story is just one story, of thousands of people that we tortured, illegally, immorally, and for years and years after we realized that torture almost never produces reliable intelligence, especially when you torture a kid who has no information to surrender.
What I am asking of you today is to simply stop being afraid.
I want you to stop being afraid of other religions.
I want you to stop being afraid of immigrants.
I want you to stop being afraid of other races.
I want you to stop being afraid of people who have different sexual orientations, or accents, or politics.
And please, please stop becoming allies to terrorists by doing them the favor of being afraid, which fuels your anger, because anger can turn America into a monster.